Pat's train was right on time. Michael and I lost an hour of sleep...but we were happy to have an extra hour of fishing for the day.
Our plan for the morning was to check out a lake in the Pine Barrens. We have good authority that the lake was full of Blackbanded Sunfish, Bluespotted Sunfish, Banded Sunfish and Mud Sunfish. These smaller "micro" sunfish species prefer soft, acidic and tannic water, often found in bogs and slow moving section of rivers. They are often a challenge to find since they prefer heavy weed habitat. In some lakes, the presence of other larger sunfish species quickly outcompleted the little sunfishes to the bait. Since these 4 species were the predominant species in this lake, we have a very interesting situation.
The weather was once again unsettled upon our arrival. With some steady wind rippling the surface, and spitting rain dimpling the water, it would be rather hard to sightfish for these micro sunfish without sunlight penetrating the dark water, you could not see very deep. Our only option was to fish blinded, poking around all the holes in the weeds and shore cover hoping for a bite.
Michael and Pat started fishing as I prepared a new tenkara rod for its virgin trip. This new rod was made of fiberglass. It was a bit heavier (still very light to hold though), but shorter in extended length and in collapsed size. The slower action was much more forgiving and I expect to get better hookup ratio and hook retaining ratio with the rod in the future. My existing graphite tenkara simple felt a bit too long at times for a controlled presentation.
By the time I tied up, I had already wasted some 15 minutes. Then the wind gusted and blew my newly tied rig into a tangle mess. Great! Just my type of luck on this weekend. It took another 15 minutes before the problem was fixed. By that time, from later conversation, Michael had already caught a lifer Bluespotted Sunfish and a lifer Banded Sunfish.
I started poking around all the holes in the weedbed. I wasn't getting any bites at all, even in the weeds that were just a foot from shore. The shoreline had vegetation that hung over the water, providing a kind of undercut habitat situation. In certain areas, there may only be 3-4" of water under the vegetation, but some other areas had 6-12" of water beneath the plats. I started poking around the deeper areas. At first, I would fish in typical sunfish manner. If I put the bait into a likely location and didn't get bit immediately, I would move to the next likely location. However, something tells me to slow down, perhaps owing to the fact that it was a very weedy area and it may take time for fish to sense the bait and come out of the weeds to inspect the offering. When I slowed down the presentation. I finally had a bite. I missed the initial bite, but the second try rewarded me with my lifer Bluespotted Sunfish!
Bluespotted Sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus) - Species #396
I've previously tried for this species in Virginia. I fished all day poking around weed pocket in knee to waist deep water. Our experience on this lake suggested that perhaps we were approaching the situation all wrong. It make sense that these micro sunfish would be tucked in tight to shallow shoreline vegetation. These are areas that predators, like Chain Pickerel, could not easily access. So perhaps our success was partially due to this new realization...and also owing to the fact that this lake has no large sunfish species to compete for the bait.
You can see in this picture where the shoreline vegetation hung over the water, creating suitable habitat for the micro sunfishes.
I fished the entire side of the cove catching one other Bluespotted Sunfish. Then I heard some excited screams from Michael. I'm not sure what he has caught at that point. So I slowly fish my way toward him and Pat. Along the way, I fished some stumps and tree root area. A few Bluespotted Sunfish came to hand...and then something a little different. It was a Banded Sunfish!
Banded Sunfish (Enneacanthus obesus) - Species #397
Personally, I found that the Banded Sunfish favours some woody structure in their habitat. It seems like I catch most, if not all, of them when there is either a stump, some tree root or some fallen branches around the overhanging vegetation. If I fish purely weedy areas, I caught Bluespotted Sunfish.
When I finally chatted with Pat, he said Michael caught a Mud Sunfish, which was what the fuss was all about. Pat had only caught Bluespotted Sunfish thus far, so I suggested that he should poke around the woody area. It wasn't long before Pat caught his lifer Banded Sunfish as well.
Upon Pat's suggestion, I tried to fish the spot where Michael caught his Mud Sunfish. Perhaps, the wooded structure nearby could yield another one. However, all the deeper dock post yield zero bites, regardless of the species. They fish were simply relating to the shallowest water. I tried Michael's spot for about 30 minutes, and decided to move on. Pat came to poke around Michael's spot and was immediately reward with a juvenile Mud Sunfish. That was just the type of luck I had all weekend.
However, I started analyzing the situation with Pat. It appeared that the two Mud Sunfish were caught in the shallowest water possible. Many sources suggest that they are mostly nocturnal and they hide in the darkest spots by day. With that in mind, I tried to location similar habitat...but yet, I was still only catching Bluespotted Sunfish and Banded Sunfish.
At this point, it was already 12pm. We had planned to fish Townsends Inlet in the afternoon, but since the inlet was 2 hours away, and we planned to meet up Matt for an evening fishing session back in Philadelphia, there really would have been too little time to fish at the inlet. Since we had pretty good success here finding our targets, we decided to put in more time for that last Blackbanded Sunfish.
What baffled Pat and I was the absence of Blackbanded Sunfish. This species was supposed to be abundant in the lake, but we had yet to encounter one. Perhaps we were fishing the wrong habitat? Between the three of us, we had already tried all sorts of habitat and came up empty on the Blackbanded. Perhaps they could only be found in the heaviest weed, hidden in the middle of the vegetation, or perhaps they prefer a different type of bottom.
Pat and I decided to check out the boat launch. It had a gravel and sandy bottom. However, we didn't even get any bites in the area. In fact, this entire stretch of shoreline appeared void of sunfish.
Then I saw it. "It" was a good section of a tree branch that had fallen into the water. There was a main branch that was about 3" in diameter with many secondary and tertiary branches. Most of the branches were in the water with exception of some tips poking out of the surface. The weeds grew heavily around and in between the branches. There were only a couple of holes big enough to dip my rig into the habitat, and perhaps pull the fish out if one exists.
On the first try, I had a series of bites. The fish was aggressive enough to pull the line to the side toward the weeds. I tried to set the hook but was fouled by the weeds. Over and over again, I lowered the bait and received bites and missed on the hookset. I decided to put on a slightly larger chunk of worm on the hook, hoping that the fish would hang onto the bait longer. This time, I let the fish fully take the bait back into the weeds before pulling on the rod. The fish was finally on the hook, but so was a clump of weed. I saw a larger, dark brown body with a larger mouth. It was a Mud Sunfish! However, I was a nervous wreck trying to land the fish since there was weed fouled on the line and I was only using 2lb tippet. The extra weight could snap the line, or the added fulcrum on the line, created by the weeds, could allow the fish to twist off the hook. I know...a lot of drama...but the fish was landed safely!
Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis) - Species #398
This fish came out of the habitat that we've postulated...woody, very weedy and very shallow. To test this hypothesis, there was a small bridge ahead. I looked for the shallowest, darkest corner next to a support post against shore. The area was very weedy immediately next to the bridge. I poked the bait as far back against the post as possible into the dark, shallow water...and immediately felt bites and setting the hook into a small Mud Sunfish. This was pretty unreal!
Pat and I search around some more for Blackbanded Sunfish, but we still could not track them down. By 3pm, it was time to leave. Pat wanted to get to a shop to get some bait since we wanted to fish early next morning. However, GoogleMaps lead us to a wild goose chase and we couldn't find these bait shops that were on the map. At long last, I saw a shop along the road. Conveniently, a food truck was next to the bait shop and Pat treated us to some gyros.
By the time we met up with Matt, it was already 7pm. We ran into some traffic heading into Philadelphia, which followed the weekend pattern of traffic and delays. But we did make it to the Schuylkill River. BTW, it is pronounced "SKOOL-gle"...like Google. Don't ask me how you get "SKOOL-gle" from Schuykill...
The weather was actually pretty great by this point. The sky was partly cloudy and we finally had a dry stretch. Things were definitely looking up. Our plan was to first catch some sunfish for bait, then use the live sunfish for Flathead Catfish once it got dark. According to Matt, dead bait yield mostly Channel Catfish. Flatheads must require live bait...and the bigger the better!
It took some searching before we found a good concentration of sunfish. Most of them were Bluegill Sunfish, with an occasional Pumpkinseed Sunfish mixed in. If we fished near the rocky areas, the odd Green Sunfish would appear in our catch also. Michael caught his lifer Green Sunfish fishing near the rocks. We caught caught a few beautiful Spotfish Shiners. I should have taken a picture, but I was very focused on making bait. I want that Flathead Catfish!
Once darkness fell, it was time to rig up the heavy gear. Matt and Pat fished upstream of the bridge while Michael and I covered the downstream side. Matt had warned us about the ample log jams on bottom, but I did not expect breaking off my first rig of the night on the first cast. By the time I had re-rigged everything, Michael already had two lines in the water plus a third lighter rod for eels.
I sent one bait soaking in the water before going back to the car to grab my headlamp. On the way, Pat said he had a bite but missed the hookset. It was slow on our end, so it was good to at least hear someone was having action.
It was while I was rigging up my second rod when Michael's rod took a rip. Soon, he was into a good fish. With the heavy gear, it took not much effort to bring the fish in. We could see it was a Flathead Catfish and Pat brought the net over. I had the honour to net the fish for Michael, which was a bit of a challenge since I had to lean over a broken rail to reach the fish. I couldn't put all my body weight on the rail, but yet I still had to reach down far enough with my shorter arms to net it. Thankfully, the fish was in the bag. I didn't have any pictures of my camera, but Michael's Flathead was a solid 15lb fish.
Michael's rod was positioned further downstream of the bridge. So he offered me the spot since he had already caught one. I repositioned the bait in that area, only to snag and snap off again. Now I don't even have a rig ready to fish. Again...just the type of luck I'm having this weekend :(
I finally had one rod in the water and was rigging up the second rod again when Michael's eel rod was singing. Indeed, it was an American Eel! This gave us hope that perhaps we could both check off the eel now without a late night eel fishing session.
At long last, I had two catfish baits in the water. It was time for me to rig up the third rod for eels. And as my luck dictated, I snagged and broke off on the very first cast of my eel rod. Fun times...it was extremely difficult and frustrating by this point.
As I was retying my eel rig, one of my rod took a hit! By the time I got to the rod, the fish had took off with my sunfish.
I baited up again and the sunfish came off on the cast. Then, as I retrieve the rig back in, it was snagged. Wow...can someone please give me a break!
Retied...re-baited...back it went. This time, I could feel the frisky sunfish struggling on the line and the weight felt like it had landed onto a gravel bottom.
Once again trying to get my eel rod into the water, I had just casted the rod out and settled down for the wait when my catfish rod took a hit again! This time, I got to it quickly, removed the leash, engaged the reel...and felt the line tightened and then stuck. I'm running out of patience...but I decided to give the fish just a little line and wait it out. Luckily, the fish decided to cooperate and came out almost instantly. The rod was loaded up nicely and this was a sizeable fish. At this point, I had no idea if it was a party spoiling Channel Catfish, or the celebration worthy Flathead Catfish. When I finally see some colour, it was clear that this was another decent Flathead Catfish. Matt came over with the net again and netted the fish for me.
Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) - Species #399
Matt and I took a picture together with the catfish. Thank you very much, Matt! We owe you big time!
Now that I've checked off the Flathead Catfish, my attention switched fully to American Eel. As my luck would have it, we're running out of worms for bait, since most of the worms were used for catching sunfish. There were two worms left...one was rather limp, very dead and a bit stinky; the other was still lively and fresh. I finally used up the lively worm, and now started using the Spotfin Shiner we had caught earlier.
By now it was already 12am. Pat and Matt decided to call it a night and meet us at Cape May next morning. I told them we may very well continue with the night eel fishing session, so perhaps we'll leave at 6am. Pat and Matt decided to leave at 5am to check things out.
Michael and I decided to try a spot that was suggested to me. It was a creek that flows into the Delaware system. We packed up and started the 30 minutes drive to the creek. The weather was great all evening...but now it started to rain again. It started as a gentle spit which I didn't mind at all. But closer to our destination, it began to rain steadily and moderately heavy. I simply had it and threw a fit in the car. Man, I was pissed at that moment!
I wasn't about to give up. I was pissed but I'm damned determined and stubborn. So onwards we went to the creek. We only had one stinky worm left, so we decided to try out different baits. In Pennsylvania, you are allowed 3 rods in freshwater. However, Michael offered me his rods as well to maximize my chances. He also started looking for nightcrawlers in the wet grassy areas. I know I said some not so nice things in the car. And I felt totally guilty at that point...
Anyways, we set up 4 rods with various baits. Half chunk of stinky worm, half chunk of Spotfin Shiner, a piece of squid and the last rod with a fresh nightcrawler that Michael found. Since there was a current, the rigs occasionally found a snag on bottom. I snapped off one rig and was now down to three. I could have re-rigged, but we didn't have enough bait, so fishing 4 lines was not possible.
I was holding the rod with the live nightcrawler in hand when I felt a little tap, then another tap. I fed the fish some line, expecting the tentative bite of an eel. When I set the hook and felt the fish, the struggle felt a bit like an eel, twisting and turning...but disappointingly, it was a Smallmouth Bass.
I put on the last half of the fresh nightcrawler and went back to holding the rod in hand. Not long later, I heard line pulling on one of the other rods. I could see one rod shaking and quickly grabbed it. A hookset wasn't even requied as the fish was already running down the shallow riffles. When I lifted it out of the water, I could see a long, wriggling shape that quickly balled up into a tangle mess. Yes! This is it! My American Eel!!!
American Eel (Anguilla rostrata) - Species #400!!!
It was very apt to place this American Eel as my 400th species! It epitomizes my journey in species hunting. Most of the time, it has been an uphill battle. Sure, we all get a lucky catch here and there, but most of the time, it required countless nights of research, communication with fellow anglers on their success, mapping out possible locations, and a lot of trial and error before a new species was caught. The American Eel was no different. They are endangered in Ontario and at a number so few that it's almost foolish to target them locally. I had first seen one in the wild in Maryland, but I suspected that this fish was a used bait that was recovering in the cracks of a jetty. I could see the nose of the fish was injured, typical of the nose-hooking manner used to fish eel bait. Ever since, I've tried to fish for them with Pat in Virginia, and even planned to fish for them this year in Kingston with Eli. However, our cool summer seemed to have delayed the arrival of fish and we missed out of the weekend that was available for us to put in an effort. I've sustained so much traffic delay and weather issues on this trip, and sacrificed so much needed sleep to put in an effort to catch some difficult lifers. There was really no word to describe the feeling of the moment when I finally caught the American Eel.
With the target acquired and goal accomplished, it was time to call it a night. It was a little after 3pm when we rolled into our hotel. We would again have a little over 3 hours of sleep before morning.